School closures since March 2020 have allowed students limited opportunities for structured learning, causing learning loss, and aggravating malnutrition, child abuse, child labour, school dropout and early marriage.
Online education is seen as a solution to the education emergency. A survey conducted by Karnataka Education Department indicates 55 per cent students in the state, have “good Internet access”. However, research across India, and our teaching initiative in Bengaluru South (the district reported to have the highest Internet access of 74.64 per cent), suggest that not even 25 per cent students may be able to meaningfully connect to online education— this means having uninterrupted access to an online platform for a few hours daily.
Students need to use a device that is owned and used by a parent. Many parents share a device, which will need further sharing amongst siblings for online education. Feature phones, which do not support internet access, exceed smartphones in India. Mobile phones are relatively fragile, repair has become difficult due to intermittent lockdowns and production affected by supply-chain bottlenecks. All these affect device availability.
Most households lack broadband; mobile internet is of prepaid connections, where data is limited. As online education uses audio and video, data consumption is high. Students drop out due to ‘data pack’ getting exhausted. Budget smartphones have limited storage, which is quickly exhausted given multiple users. 24/7 electricity is rare; villages can suffer power cuts for hours daily, affecting the charging of devices. As devices get older, they need frequent charging.
Poor connectivity affects online teaching. Even in Bengaluru, we see connectivity drop and become intermittent or patchy. The available connectivity does not permit all students to turn their video on, to simulate a classroom, and online teaching mostly feels like talking to a vacuum. Media stories on students’ brave attempts to access Internet from treetops to bus stops may inspire, but reveal a bleak state of affairs. Online learning is different from a video conference; the potential for students to ‘make up’ for intermittent connectivity is vastly lower in an intense process like learning. Disconnections make it difficult to follow the class. All literature and our experience suggest that the quality of interaction and instruction is much poorer online than in a classroom.
The education department distinguishes between the availability of toilets and functional toilets in schools (a significant number of toilets do not have water supply or sanitation), similarly, we should distinguish ‘internet access’ from ‘meaningful internet access’. Statistics on mere ‘access’ to a device or internet ignoring ‘meaningful access’ can lead to dangerous conclusions about online education’s potential.
While teachers are usually better off with access to devices, connectivity and electricity, most use mobile phones rather than computers; this limits instructional effectiveness. A phone is good for
conference calls but cannot effectively display visuals necessary for teaching. While a small minority of schools may conduct classes with a 4-6 hour timetable, online education is not a systemic option.
However, as the pandemic appears a long term threat, digital education, combining asynchronous sharing through apps such as WhatsApp and synchronous interaction through a video-conference platform, should not be summarily dismissed due to its current non-availability. Digital education can complement face-to-face teaching and help teachers to reach and interact with students. As students from privileged groups already use devices for self-learning and interacting, depriving others will worsen inequity.
Hence, we must establish public digital infrastructure in schools, panchayats, public libraries, for individual and community access by students. Donations of new and refurbished devices can complement public provisioning. Teachers must be encouraged to acquire computers,
including through interest-free loans.
Providing free connectivity to students is technically possible through ‘zero rating’. The government can install a free and open-source (FOSS) platform like BigBlueButton (BBB) on its server and ISPs can provide free connectivity on BBB connections. Only teachers and students will find this connection valuable, hence misuse is difficult. The government can negotiate to directly compensate ISPs, minimising the connectivity hurdle to digital education.
Governments could install Matrix, a FOSS equivalent to WhatsApp, to allow more functionality in asynchronous sharing. This includes ‘threading’ discussions, ‘grouping’ groups and localizing language interface, for more intelligent and easier interactions. Moodle FOSS learning system for online courses can equip teachers to adapt to pandemic contexts. Using FOSS is essential because proprietary platforms harvest user data, harmful to our security and privacy.
Relying on online education will worsen educational inequity. The only solution available and ignored, is to carefully, gradually re-open schools, with necessary precautions. Additionally, universalising digital education must be an ongoing systemic program to improve the educational prospects of all students over the long term.
This opinion piece was originally published by The Deccan Herald.